Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
From Mr SM Stirling
Sir: Martin Henig's article on continuity in post-Roman Britain fits neatly into the scholarly consensus which has emerged over the past 50 years ('Roman Britons after AD 410', December). The problem is that recent dna work at the University of London, and elsewhere, has blown the whole post-1945 revision of early Anglo-Saxon England out of the water.
The pre-1945 interpretation was quite sound. Work on female genetic lineages is still necessary, but as far as the Y-chromosome lines are concerned, we can now say with a high degree of confidence that the population of England - post-medieval immigrants aside - is almost entirely derived from a historically recent migratory influx, centered on what is now the northern Netherlands, Frisia in fact.
Since the Anglo-Saxons were not at a state level of development, we must assume this was not a swift military operation, but a prolonged grinding, mangling process - one which must have been accompanied by very acute consciousness of ethnic difference, and a very high degree of interethnic hostility for a very long time.
This is exactly what one would expect from the linguistic evidence and the written record, scanty though the latter is. Early Anglo-Saxon is a conservative West Germanic tongue, showing so little in the way of Celtic or Latin influence that a prolonged period of mass bilingualism is out of the question. And the written sources, including early Welsh poetry, reveal a hostility that is both deep and completely taken for granted.
This interpretation has been deeply unpopular, almost unspeakable, for the last generation and more in British academia, as anti-migrationism became a ruling orthodoxy. Yet similar DNA studies have, of course, shown that the Viking incursions too were a substantial folk-migration, not just a matter of war-bands and political takeover by an elite, although it was not on quite the same scale as the earlier Anglo-Saxon invasion.
The research is, of course, quite recent. Still, one might have expected consciousness of this information and its drastic implications for archaeology to have sunken in by now.
From Mr Ron Wilcox
Sir: I don't think that anyone would argue with Martin Henig, or has argued for some time, that Roman culture stopped dead in AD 410. In this respect he is tilting at windmills, but the end of the villa economy is a major change that must have had considerable effect on the economy of Britain.
However you compute the relationship between economy and culture in a society, this should surely have been taken into account in his thesis.
Martin Henig replies:
I have heard of the DNA work that Mr Stirling refers to, but other recent studies have come up with quite different results. One might expect some parts of the country that seem to have been depopulated, for example some of East Anglia, to produce such a result; but not others, for example the Middle Thames region, where there is every sign of continuity in agricultural practice with no regeneration of woodland or even scrub, and a development of mixed art styles.
Further, one has to explain continuities of the Christian cult at St Albans and Dorchester-on-Thames, and in burial rites such as 'decapitated burials' in central-southern Britain (page 14, this issue). Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon laws, with their clear exposition of wergild rates for different groups including Anglo-Saxons and Welshmen, show that we are dealing with a mixed population.
I am sure genetics will prove useful, but far more work needs to be done before we can draw even the most tentative conclusions from this source. For a start, we don't know enough about the genetic make-up of people in parts of eastern Britain in the Iron Age. It could have been the same as some of the communities on the Continent. We also need to know more about Danish migration in later Saxon times into the Danelaw, and about medieval population movements in general.
Nothing has been 'blown out of the water'. The evidence as a whole points to gentle development from 'Roman Britain' to 'Anglo-Saxon' England, and each passing year confirms the general conclusion.
Mr Wilcox is right to refer to the significance of the collapse of the villa economy. I thought I implied it in my article. After AD 410, it was no longer possible to lay a mosaic pavement, and it was probably hard to mend a stone wall. The currency collapsed, as we know. Nevertheless, cultural life continued despite these massive disruptions.
From Prof Barbara Yorke
Sir: I enjoyed Hannah O'Regan's article on the early archaeology and history of zoos ('From bear pit to zoo,' December). She writes that the history of wild animal collections in Britain 'began, it seems, with Henry I in his park at Woodstock.' However, it is possible that the history of royal or aristocratic zoos can be pushed back to before the Norman conquest.
Goscelin, writing in about 1080 about Princess Edith (d 984), the daughter of King Edgar, records that she had a 'suburb' of animals of native and foreign species in the nunnery at Wilton where she resided as a young girl. These animals may have been brought by foreign dignatories who came to pay their respects to Edith and her mother (the abbess of Wilton and a former queen). The description occurs in a chapter of Goscelin's Life of Saint Edith where he is stressing indicators of her princessly status.
The idea of exotic animals as prestigious gifts in Anglo-Saxon England may have been inspired by experience in Carolingian Europe, where Charlemagne had been sent an elephant as one of several gifts from the Caliph of Baghdad.
From Ms Mary Mills
Sir: In his reply to a letter about a GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical works at Dartford, Tim Allen seems to withdraw his previous statement about the existence of an early chemical industry at Deptford (Letters, October; 'The forgotten chemical revolution', August).
He need not have done so. Evidence for copperas in Deptford (and Greenwich) is well founded, going back to at least the mid-17th century. Although the Deptford copperas works closed in about 1836, it was succeeded on site by chemical works owned by Frank Hills who patented and made a fortune from gas purification processes.
I cannot argue the case for Deptford copperas before the mid-17th century, but it was clearly a long-standing works when taken over by the Crispe family after the Civil War. There is a dearth of pre-Civil War records, but I would not be surprised to find that it was founded considerably before this date.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005